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The taut Mike Nichols drama Silkwood (1983) was based on the real life case of a plutonium processing plant metallurgy worker, Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who discovered corporate powers were covering up radiation leaks at Oklahoma's Kerr-McGee plant. Karen's whistle blower efforts as a union activist to reveal Kerr- McGee's possible radiation poisoning of its employees ended tragically. Karen had been a union activist with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers' Union who was a vocal advocate for plant safety. Reportedly on her way to meet with New York Times reporter David Burnham, Karen died in a suspicious one-car accident in November 1974. Some believed the accident was actually an intentional murder for Karen's outspoken critique of Kerr-McGee plant safety. Others blamed Karen's abuse of alcohol and drugs, found in small quantities in her blood.
Nichols' film is a wonderfully realistic attempt not to sugarcoat or make Karen Silkwood into a martyr, but to show the reality of her life as a powerless but very human and determined working class woman.
As Streep observed in a 1983 American Film interview, "she wasn't Joan of Arc at all. She was unsavory in some ways and yet she did some very good things."
In Nichols' interpretation of Karen's life, Karen lives in an unconventional fashion with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend Dolly (Cher) in the desolate expanse of rural Cimarron, Oklahoma. In addition to her effort to expose negligence at the nuclear plant, Karen is also engaged in a protracted battle with her former common law husband for time with their three children. With a growing sense of determination and purpose, Silkwood shows Karen's metamorphosis from an irresponsible, directionless woman into someone awakened to the world around her and anxious to fight for a cause.
Silkwood was in the end a triumph of powerful performances from Streep, Cher and Russell and a realistic take on the American working class. "Mike spoke of the film as being about people being asleep in their lives and waking up: 'How did I get here?' And that's exactly how I felt," Streep told American Film.
"I think the movie is about human nature more than about any issue," said Streep.
In answer to an American Film question about whether making Silkwood allowed Streep to know Karen Silkwood, the actress responded, "I get very creepy feelings if I think about it. My heart breaks for her. She was only twenty-eight or twenty-nine when she died, and it was a real waste. I'm really glad I got the chance to try to step into her shoes for a while."
Following her death, an autopsy revealed that Karen Silkwood had plutonium contamination in several organs. Her family filed a civil suit against Kerr-McGee following Karen's death for inadequate health and safety at the plant which led to her plutonium exposure. After years of legal fights, the suit was finally settled out of court for $1.3 million.
A refugee from Nazi Germany, Nichols first discovered movies as a child at his neighborhood cinema where he would flee to avoid his parent's constant bickering. His film debut in 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was one of the box office hits of 1966 and began a career notable for some important highs and some devastating lows as well. Nichols won his only Best Director Oscar® one year later for the cultural and generational touchstone The Graduate (1967). His next film Catch-22 (1970) was less popular with critics and audiences, though Carnal Knowledge (1971) starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel was widely praised by critics. Nichols says it is his favorite film.
Two unsuccessful films followed, The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975). Nichols was only able to regain his reputation and prove his talents once again with the release of the enormously successful Silkwood. In an article in Entertainment Weekly Nichols called it "the beginning of me exploring a more fluid, less conscious approach to movies."
The New York Times critic Vincent Canby said Silkwood "may be the most serious work Mr. Nichols has yet done in films, and that would include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Catch-22." He considered his next film, Heartburn (1986), one of his underrated films. Though Mandy Patinkin was originally cast to play the Carl Bernstein role in the film, he was eventually replaced, at Nichols' urging, with his much-admired actor Jack Nicholson. Nichols was thrilled to discover it was a very agreeable casting change: there turned out to be a great deal of chemistry between Nicholson and costar Meryl Streep playing Bernstein's wife Nora Ephron.
Nichols would wait ten more years for a comic blockbuster to measure up to the success of The Graduate, with 1996's The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as gay boyfriends in a remake of Jean Poiret's French play "La Cage Aux Folles," which had been made into a 1978 film by Edouard Molinaro.
Jane Fonda, who starred in another nuclear power plant thriller The China Syndrome (1979) for a time owned the rights to the Silkwood story. Fonda's costar in 9 to 5, Lily Tomlin also auditioned for the role of Dolly. But the role proved to be tailor made for both Cher and for Streep. But because Streep had won a Best Actress Academy Award the year before for Sophie's Choice (1982), she was considered an unlikely choice to win again for Silkwood. Despite a remarkable, critically praised performance, Streep lost to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.
In fact, Streep only had 2 1/2 weeks off between shooting Sophie's Choice and Silkwood. That incredibly demanding schedule might be attributed to Streep's acknowledged reluctance to turn down jobs for fear that the offers would stop coming.
Cher also received great acclaim and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination for her role as a lesbian in Silkwood. She lost to Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously but Cher went on to garner praise for her role in the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck for which she won a Best Actress Oscar®.
Silkwood was nominated for a total of 5 Oscar®s including for Best Director, Screenplay and Film Editing.
Director: Mike Nichols
Producer: Buzz Hirsch, Larry Cano
Screenplay: Nora Ephron, Alice Arlen
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Production Design: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Meryl Streep (Karen Silkwood), Kurt Russell (Drew Stephens), Cher (Dolly Pelliker), Craig T. Nelson (Winston), Diana Scarwid (Angela), Fred Ward (Morgan), Ron Silver (Paul Stone).
by Felicia Feaster